Charlie Staadecker wins my vote for being the first at the table for a mayoral forum that started a half-hour late.
A standing room only crowd overflowed into the corridors at the Georgetown campus of South Seattle Community College last night for the first public forum of the 2013 mayoral campaign. And if there's anything to learn from last night's event it's that while interest in the race is high, the policy distinctions between the major candidates are few.
"People want to believe again," proclaimed Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell in an inspired moment of passion. But apart from former council member Peter Steinbrueck's scornful rejection of the Sodo arena deal, the challengers mostly failed to differentiate themselves from the mayor on what they specifically planned to do with the office. Hope and no change—that pretty much sums up the theme of a campaign that promises to focus on the incumbent's interpersonal skills while articulating little substantive difference on policy or values.
Of course, the general lack of substance in last night's forum can partly be blamed on the format—it's hard to find time for in-depth discussion when forced to accommodate seven candidates. But the two "lightning rounds" didn't help. No doubt lightning rounds are a crowd pleaser, but they are cursory by design. And while I suppose "yes or no" questions can be usefully definitive, not so much when none of the candidates adhere to the instructions.
"Possibly," "waffle," "yes and no," and "ask the mayor" were all boldly offered as non-answers, while Socialist Worker Party candidate Mary Martin appeared to be playing her own game, scrawling long essays about the evils of capitalism in response to, say, whether the city should pay the salary of the president of the police the union? (It was one of two questions on which all the other candidates followed directions. They all answered "No." The other was "Are you a Democrat?" to which, predictably, they all answered "Yes.")
But even outside the lightning rounds there wasn't much time to delve into policy. Mayor Mike McGinn occasionally filibustered a detailed list of programs and initiatives, but for the most part this forum was a triumph of style over substance. Well, not exactly a triumph. More like a pyrrhic victory. If the metric of success is who can appear more angry at McGinn, then I suppose it was tie between Harrell and Steinbrueck. But anger hardly seems like a winning strategy when the main complaint agains the mayor is that he doesn't get along with people. Or maybe that's just me.
The problem for the candidates is that you can't win citywide election in Seattle without subscribing to a rather narrow ideological agenda (or at least, professing to subscribe to it), and that leaves little room for a substantive debate of the kind one tends to see in partisan elections. All of the candidates support transit. All of the candidates support schools. All of the candidates support social justice (whatever that means). All of the candidates think the mayor should have done something different about the Seattle Police Department's problems (except, you know, the mayor). So lacking a prominent issue like the tunnel to differentiate the candidates, the focus inevitably turns to competence and personality.
So what did we learn about the candidates? Steinbrueck hates the Sodo arena but loves to make pizza. Kate Martin collects vinyl. If Ed Murray went to Catholic schools you wouldn't know it from his terrible handwriting. Harrell is the only candidate who admits to mostly getting around by car (Tim Burgess's Prius apparently doesn't count). And Burgess is sooooo competitive that when Charlie Staadecker weirdly talked about having a photo of his naked, newborn granddaughter on his phone, Burgess attempted to trump him by claiming to be tracking the fetus that is currently growing inside his pregnant daughter. Double weird.
But by far the oddest answer of the night (that didn't involve Mary Martin quoting Hegel or describing Cuba as her ideal neighborhood) was when a bow-tied Staadecker revealed that his inspiration for running came from "a vision of standing at home plate in a baseball uniform," with his father and grandfather urging him on. Build it and they will run. Or something.
Not exactly a momentous evening, but then, it was only the first of many. And if there were any real winners or losers, it was only relative to expectations. An uncharacteristically subdued Murray failed to live up to his status as the putative frontrunner. And Harrell perhaps exceeded expectations a touch, aggressively attempting to seize for himself the role of the anti-McGinn.
But I wouldn't wager any money on this race based on what was (or wasn't) said at last night's forum.